This post may in fact be a continuation of yesterday's rant; but I'll be heading off on a somewhat different tangent and hopefully rounding out and concluding my present contemplations on the notion that life must have some kind of purpose.
One of the concepts the Catholic Church co-opted from the Ancient Greek philosophers was the idea of Natural Law; and if the selection of articles I read yesterday on Life Site News
are anything to go by, it's one that still heavily infuses their thinking on matters of morality, particularly (and the cynic in me says exclusively
) sexual morality. I am once again reminded of Stephen Fry's most elegantly cutting summation
of the Catholic Church's attitude to sex - "The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese; and that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic Church in a nutshell."
But I digress...well, a bit. The basis of Natural Law in terms of ethical reasoning is that everything in nature - in creation, as religious believers would have it - is directed towards a natural end, an ultimate purpose. What this means in terms of sex, since this is the example most readily to hand, is that the proper, natural purpose of sex is procreation. The upshot of this is that any
use or practise of sex that is not accompanied by the active intent to conceive is violating its correct moral end. Hence the church's condemnation of homosexuality and its insistence that nonprocreative sexual activity is the height of selfishness, an act of moral evil.
I'll leave aside, for the time being, the fact that the only arena in which the church's adherence to Natural Law theory apparently prevails is in matters of sex and reproduction - in most other aspects of life, natural moral ends tend to fall by the wayside. But what of this idea that nature itself, upon rational examination, yields answers to the philosophical quandaries of what we are here for and what we ought to do with our lives? You might think, on the basis of my professed pantheistic leanings, that I would be all over the idea that nature provides the key to understanding our purpose in life; I have already indicated my enthusiasm for Sam Harris's claim that science can determine human values
through examination of what constitutes human well-being in the world as it is. I think there is a genuine sense in which nature can and does inform our moral thinking and behaviour. This is not, however, the sense in which it is used by Natural Law theorists.
The defining feature of the concept of Natural Law is, of course, this idea of natural ends
- everything, including the human animal, has a purpose, a reason for being, some goal that it was designed to accomplish. Behaving in ways that tend towards this designated end is thus morally good; behaving in ways that don’t tend towards it is morally bad, wrong, evil, unnatural
. Notice right away the first glaring problem with this assessment – its narrow conception of purposes and ends. Everything has an end
, singular. Nothing ought to be repurposed, hacked, or in any way moved from the correct channel that leads towards the achievement of its one true object. The idea is laughable when taken to its logical extreme.
Notice also the problem inherent in the very question of how we can know
what the particular purpose or end of any being or action is or ought to be. Undoubtedly the ancient philosophers observed the world around them, noting that certain beings tended to behave purposefully and that certain actions tended towards certain ends. So far, so good – but by what leap of reasoning does one conclude that because something tends towards
some end, that one particular end constitutes its true purpose
This may have been what David Hume was getting at with his insistence that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' – you can’t look at what is the case in nature and thus determine what should be the case in an ethical sense. I have my own issues with this idea – I don’t know how else you can
derive an ‘ought’ other than by means of what ‘is’ – but I do feel that the ancients and the Catholics after them have gravely misused and belittled nature by trying to limit the concept of what is ‘natural’ and therefore morally good to such a small set of strictures. This does, in fact, constitute a highly artificial
imposition of human rules and regulations upon the natural world and our own behaviour as beings deeply embedded in nature.
Having said all that, however, the real kicker is this – it’s also natural
for humans to try to categorise and impose order on the world around us. This is a glorious irony, in view of the fact that nature is as nature does – and it is not static but almost endlessly mutable, elastic, malleable – and while we are part of it, we cannot say with truth that any of our actions are unnatural
. We certainly can say that some actions lead to objectively positive or negative outcomes and subjectively good or bad experiences but we cannot impose the judgement that any such actions are unnatural – how could they be? It’s also worth observing, though this is not the place to delve into it, that by these lights, the set of actions leading to positive outcomes, by both objective and subjective measures, is rather different from the set of actions deemed morally acceptable by the Catholic Church.
So where does all this leave us, in terms of identifying and pursuing the purpose of our existence?
Well, I think it should be abundantly clear by now that I do not believe life has
a purpose, an ultimate end, as such. I’m also realistic enough to recognise that it’s a very naturally human characteristic to yearn for answers, for meaning, for a reason to get out of bed every day. We very often can’t just have what we want for the asking, though – usually we have to make an effort to go out and get it...or invent it, if it’s not yet available. Yet to say that we make our own purposes and meanings in life never seems to be enough to satisfy those who want our existence to have some ultimate, cosmic significance.
For myself, I find it oddly liberating to consider the very likely possibility that we are just here
, for no better or more profound reason than that nature just happened that way. I don’t know if I want my actions to be important to anyone other than myself and those affected by them. I am content with the idea that my life will be important to me and mine while it lasts but when I’m done, I’m done. The knowledge that when my body is no longer any use to my conscious self, because the latter will have ceased to exist at my death, it will sink into the earth, decompose and its atoms be used, perhaps, by other life, is a greater source of comfort to me than contemplation of any possible spiritual afterlife.
I can think of no better way to round off this post than with a quotation from The God Delusion
, which I am currently rereading. It’s from an interview Richard Dawkins conducted with James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix molecular structure of DNA. As those who have read any of Dawkins’ work will know, he rejects the idea that religion and science address completely different questions of existence – the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) school of reconciling empirical investigation and supernatural faith. Science, so the claim runs, attempts to answer the questions about how the world works; religion, on the other hand, tries to find out what it’s all for. Watson’s response to this idea, quoted in the book, is delightfully dismissive: “Well I don’t think we’re for
anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.”